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What do families fight over in estates?

fair division of assets

If you have a will, you’ve likely found what you deem to be a fair division of assets. But, have you done it in a way that will appease everyone? Estate planning can be a difficult task simply because no one wants to think about what may happen after they die. Still, another reason it can be a challenge is because of the choices we must make and family dynamics. 

The division of assets and inheritance money can seem fairly straightforward for some. For others, who have a large family that may not get along, it can be a complicated and stressful task. 

Additional Reading for Smart Estate Planning

Why do families fight over assets?

family estate planning

If you think “there is no way my family would ever argue about the way I choose to split my assets,” think again. Although it’s challenging to imagine families separating during a time they should come together, inheritances can often become a familiar and unnecessary argument.

Some situations are more likely to encounter these types of ownership battles, such as sibling rivalries, economic disparity and late marriage. 

Perhaps your grandchildren don’t get along as well as they once did. Maybe your nephew is in more financial duress than your niece. Perhaps your son remarried at a later point in life. If you do not regularly update your estate plan, you may miss these red flags that could be cause for concern. 

“Equality won’t always solve a fight,” says Les Kotzer, Wills and Estates lawyer based in Ontario. Frequently, if parents think giving equal ownership in an asset to their children will help, they might be in for a rude awakening.

“They often assume kids will work it out on their own,” says Kotzer. “But that’s not always the case.”

What are the most argued about assets in divorce and death? 

guardianship in family estate plan

#1. Houses and vacation properties

Unsurprisingly, a common point of contention between family members is when they inherit a home or vacation property split between themselves and their siblings. Sometimes it can be as simple as one family member wanting to sell the property vs another family wanting to keep the property. However, in other situations, it can come down to a heated argument regarding whether a sibling is responsible enough to manage that home. 

Kotzer shared a story regarding two clients who had a difficult time sharing a vacation property simply because their cleaning habits were vastly different. One sibling was consistently picking up after the other and couldn’t take the mess any longer. Rather than wait for these arguments to blow up, consider discussing these inheritance setups and how best to split a property before it’s too late.

#2. Jewelry or flashpoint items

Aside from jewelry, other flashpoints or personal items include anything from investments (stocks and bonds) to vehicles. Most people who put together a will tend to leave behind unique or expensive items to their loved ones with too little detail. You may say you’d like to leave your ring to your daughter but forget to specify which ring you are referring to. “Is it your wedding ring, is it another ring? You need to be specific,” says Kotzer. 

You may think that these items aren’t relevant or essential to divide, but that’s not always the case. Your assets are valuable, whether through monetary or sentimental means and should be considered relevant to your estate plan.

#3. Guardianship of children and pets

One of the most important reasons for writing a will is to confirm who will take custody of your children or pets should anything happen to you. If you aren’t sure who to choose for this responsibility, consider your values and who would be able to support your offspring financially and otherwise. It can be a significant point of contention among family members who feel they should be the chosen guardian for your children or pets. 

One way to be sure the best decision is made and that all parties are clear on the choice made is by having an open discussion. You can make your decision for guardianship based on personal values, age of the guardian or financial security. 

Once you’ve made the decision, be sure to ask the guardians you’ve chosen if they are comfortable with this opportunity. You want to ensure that they are not a guardian to another family, and also that they are willing to take on such a significant obligation. Typically, if you choose a guardian, it’s always a good idea to leave them with some financial compensation to provide support to your child or pet.

#4. Memorable items or gifts

Lastly, Kotzer recommends that if you received any substantial contributions from family members, that you make the obvious decision, and return that gift to whoever gave it to you. Think about a somewhat expensive item you were gifted. Now imagine giving that item to a relative rather than the friend who gifted it to you. Although it might seem harmless because that item belongs to you, it may be taken the wrong way and become a bigger deal than you anticipated. 

If you are concerned about a natural division of assets, try to think about the reasons you choose to allocate your belongings. Consider whether or not any of your items have a specific memory or evoke a particular emotion. It’s perfectly acceptable to leave a written explanation within your will to provide context as to why you left a certain item to someone. You can also ask the friend or family member if they would be offended if you were to leave that item to someone else upon your passing to gauge their reaction. 

How can you create a fair division of assets?

common estate plan arguments

Now that you’re aware of the most argued about assets in divorce and death, how can you ensure that your allocation is appropriate for your family situation? Kotzer says the easiest way to ensure equality and a fair division of assets is by choosing the right executor. An executor is appointed by yourself to ensure that they carry out the terms of your will as you wish. 

“You’re not going to be there to explain your own will,” says Kotzer. Therefore, the person you appoint to be responsible for your estate must be well aware of any discrepancies that may occur during the division of assets. 

An executor can be there to ensure majority rules during conversations about where assets should go and what items belong to who. 

Before you provide the executor with this responsibility, consider the following questions to help make decisions and divisions easier for them to execute:

  1. How will we negotiate any differences in needs?
  2. Should we consider professional support, such as an estate lawyer, to handle discrepancies? 
  3. Is an equal division of the asset acceptable among all recipients? 

These simple questions can provide clarity for your family or your executor when navigating an awkward conversation that calls for negotiation. 

A will is not a do-it-yourself project. It is best organized and managed by a professional, particularly if you have any special requests or suggestions for how your assets are divided. The most difficult estates to divide are those with no pre-planning or preparation to handle where your belongings will end up. Regardless of the situation, try your best to manage an equal distribution of assets. After all, you decide where your assets belong. 

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Alyssa Davies

Alyssa is an award-winning personal finance blogger and founder of She writes about being a mom, overcoming personal debts, and how to get away with affording your ridiculously expensive latte habit. A new homeowner, Alyssa brings her real-life knowledge of the Canadian real estate market and smart money matters to this growing brand.